In 1085, William 'sent his men over all England into each shire' to investigate his subjects, their lands and wealth. Domesday Book thus enabled the king to record the estates of his barons as well as his own and to check that none had seized land unlawfully. Domesday was also a record of tax due from each landholder. The book's title is a nickname given to it by the native English, who equated its sentence with the day of Judgement.
At the time of the Conquest most people worked on the land. Life was hard, barely above subsistence level. The main crops were grain, grown as food for both men and animals and to make ale, the national drink. Domesday Book frequently refers to 'plough lands' and to 'ploughs', which were the essential agricultural tool. They were often shared, although some estates and some working men possessed their own ploughs and teams. Partly because every available field was cultivated, there were few hers of animals, although pigs were numerous, as they could forage in woodland. Much of the country was covered by forest, marsh and fen, which were gradually being cleared.
Most people lived in villages in the centre of arable land. Some men were free and held their own land, but even they had to pay their lord a nominal rent and help bring in the harvest. Most people were villeins, the next class down: each villein had his own plough land - perhaps 20 or 30 acres - allocated in strips within the communal open fields, but had to work two or three days a week on the lord's land. The bottom rank was landless serfs, compelled to spend all their time tilling the lord's estates and forbidden to leave their village. Domesday Book was the crowning glory of William's reign. He died less than two years after ordering the survey to be made while campaigning against Philip I of France. He was either injured or overcome by exhaustion while leading his army through the burning town of Nantes. Six weeks later he died at the abbey of Saint-Gervais, near Rouen.
Medieval Monarchs edited by Elizabeth Hallam. Tiger Books
International, 1996 p 15